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What Makes Open Water Swimmer Haley Anderson So Fast?

By Peggy Shinn | April 30, 2015, 1:29 p.m. (ET)

Haley Anderson (#301) competes at the Open Water National Championships, April 24-26, 2015, in Miromar Lakes, Fla.

In a thrilling women’s 10-kilometer race at Open Water National Championships last weekend, Haley Anderson finished a close second. After swimming six miles in Miromar Lakes, Florida, Anderson and Becca Mann swam side-by-side coming into the finishing chute, with Mann out-touching Anderson by 0.365 seconds. Mann claimed her second consecutive national title.

But Anderson, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 10k, was fine with taking the runner-up spot.

“I just really wanted to get top two because the top two go to Kazan (2015 world championships) for the 10k,” she said. “That’s my overall goal.”

Any swimmer finishing in the top 10 of the 10k in Kazan on July 28, 2015, will qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Should she qualify, it will be Anderson’s second Olympic Games. This time, she would like to win gold.

Anderson also won the 5k title — a non-Olympic event — at nationals last weekend, earning a berth at worlds in that event.

So what makes this 23-year-old former NCAA champion so strong over the long haul?

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Haley Anderson (#301) finishes first in the 5-kilometer at the Open Water National Championships on April 26, 2015, in Miromar Lakes, Fla.

A tall swimmer with a big smile, Anderson was raised in a swimming family in Granite Bay, California — about halfway between the Bay Area and Lake Tahoe. Her mom, Colette, swam distance events in college and had her daughters in the pool at a young age. And young Haley was determined to keep up with big sister Alyssa — 14 months older.

Alyssa also competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games, winning gold in the pool in the women’s 4x200-meter freestyle.

“She’s an amazing athlete, person and student,” said Haley. “She is just incredible at everything she does. I tried to emulate her as much as possible.”

But sibling rivalry was not always positive for Haley. Following Alyssa in the pool, she always felt like she was in her sister’s shadow — or more like her wake. Any rivalry was unspoken. But Haley was always playing catch up.

“I’d try to stay as close to her as possible,” Haley acknowledged. “I was that annoying little sister who was following her everywhere.”

But Haley did not follow Alyssa to college. Alyssa went to the University of Arizona, where she was a 16-time NCAA All-American and broke the school record in the 500-yard freestyle. Haley went to the University of Southern California, where she won three NCAA titles in the 500- and 1,650-yard freestyle, and swam to school records in the 500, 1,000, and 1,650 free.

At USC, she did her first open water race at her coach’s suggestion.

“I wasn’t very partial to it at first,” Haley admitted. “I was like, ‘Oh gosh, a two-hour race, really?’”

But in that 10k race — U.S. nationals — she qualified for the 2010 FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships in Roberval, Quebec, where she finished fourth in the 25k race.

If a 10k is a two-hour race, the 25k takes almost six hours. And it was only Haley’s second open water competition.

“It was just nuts,” she said. “It’s not the way I recommend getting into the sport.”

After that, 10k felt short. And she realized that she had the mental strength for open water swimming. Over the course of two hours in the water, “you’re definitely doubting yourself a lot during it,” she said. “Every race, you have to overcome those doubts and, overall, all your negativity.”

Despite her early success in open water, the Olympics were not on Haley’s radar.

“It was always our dream,” she said, “but it didn’t really seem like a goal at the time. It wasn’t something that seemed attainable.”

Haley Anderson arrives for the 2014 Golden Goggle Awards at the Marriott Marquis Times Square on Nov. 24, 2014 in New York City.

In fact, it didn’t seem like a realistic goal until June 9, 2012, when she won the FINA Olympic Marathon Swim Qualifier in Portugal. Alyssa qualified 19 days later at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

While Alyssa competed in London during the first week of the Games, Haley was at a pre-Olympic training camp in Canada. Her event would be held eight days later. She had to watch her sister achieve her dream on TV. When she arrived in London, she saw Alyssa’s gold medal and was “in shock.”

Then Haley dove into the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park for her own chance at an Olympic medal. Still a relative newcomer in open water swimming, she wasn’t on the public’s radar.

But as the race unfolded, sibling rivalry helped her push through the pain.

“Alyssa’s got a gold medal,” she thought, “I can’t go home with nothing.”

With a surge in the race’s final meters, Haley came within 0.4 seconds of winning and took home a silver medal.

She climbed out of the water, saw her whole family in the stands and received “the best hug” from Alyssa — her favorite memory from the London Games.

After the 2012 Games, Alyssa retired from swimming. But the close finish in London motivated Haley to keep swimming.

“Over the past three years, I keep thinking about that 0.4,” she said. “Over two hours, that’s nothing. That is so close.”

Since London, Haley has won gold in the 5k at 2013 world championships and another gold in the 10k at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships.

This weekend, she will compete in the FINA World Cup in Mexico, then return to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for high-altitude training.

In Kazan, Russia, from July 24-Aug. 9, 2015, she would like to defend her 5k world title. But her priority is to finish top 10 in the 10k and secure a spot for Rio.

“It’s easier in my head saying top 10,” she said. “Hopefully I do better than top 10.”

Asked if her goal is gold in Rio, she doesn’t like to make brash statements. It creates too much pressure.

“My goals are definitely internal,” she said. “I’m always really scared telling people my goals. Sometimes I don’t even tell my coaches.”

But then she added, quietly, “Getting silver last time, it would be nice to get gold.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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Haley Anderson